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Stechel: "The Visual History Archive is the best we can do to keep the memory of the victims alive."
Consul General Walter Stechel at the Aristoteles University Thessaloniki, © Yannis Tsouflidis
Remarks by Consul General Stechel at the Inauguration of the access of the Aristoteles University Thessaloniki to the Visual History Archive of the USC Shoah Foundation.
Thank you very much for inviting me to say a few words at the inauguration of the Aristoteles University’s access to the visual history archive of the Shoah Foundation.
Let me begin with a big thank you
- to Prof. Antoniou, who took the initiative and pursued the project through all the inevitable ups and downs;
- to the University for hosting the project;
- to the Jewish community of Thessaloniki for their generous contribution and commitment;
- to the Shoah Foundation for providing the access and above all for creating the archive in the first place.
The German government that I represent is proud to sponsor this access for students and researchers but also for the Jewish community of Thessaloniki. It thus serves two purposes - of preserving the memory and identity of the once vibrant Jerusalem of the Balkans and of passing on to the next generation this memory and the message "Never again".
Both, the memory and the message challenge us. Let me put it into a personal context.
I was born in 1953, 35 years after the end of WW I. Both my grandfathers served in this war to end all wars. I never had a chance to talk to them about their experience. WW I to me now is a distant historical event. There is nobody left to tell me in person about their suffering.
I was born eight years after the end of WW II. I grew up amid the ruins of Darmstadt, my home town. I heard from my mother about her nights in the air raid shelters and from my father about his fate as a prisoner of war in Russia. I did not hear about Auschwitz until the trials in nearby Frankfurt, from 1963 to 1965. At that time I was a ten-year old, not yet understanding the magnitude of the crime and the responsibility it put on my country and me.
Life and therefore history does not stop. It relentlessly puts into our memories layer upon layer. During my lifetime I was a contemporary to the Vietnam War, the first man on the moon, the Cold War, detente, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, to name just a few landmark events. Like a red thread encounters with Jews occurred through these years – accidentally meeting a Jew from Darmstadt in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1979, encountering Bagdadi Jews in Mumbai/India in 2006, returning German citizenship to the descendants of Jews who were stripped of it by Nazi-Germany as Consul-General in Toronto, meeting Holocaust survivors in Toronto and now in Thessaloniki. I sincerely appreciate that one of them, Anna Saatsoglou-Santikario is amongst us today. For me, meeting survivors of German concentration camps, is always a moving but difficult experience. They have suffered through the worst man can inflict onto his fellow human beings, How would he or she react to me, the citizen, the representative of the country of the perpetrators? I was fortunate so far to experience much kindness and generosity in these encounters.
Our son Maximilian was born on the 24th of November of 1989, a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. He could not talk to his grandparents about their experience during the Nazi regime and WW II. But he had the chance to visit Yad Vashem and personally meet with a Holocaust survivor in Toronto. He knows. But what will our grandson Matteo know, who was born in 2018? To him the Cold War will be almost as distant as WW I is to me. He will grow up facing challenges like an unhinged global system, globalization, migration, climate change. How will we draw his attention from these crucial problems to the history of the Holocaust and the fate of the Jewish people? How do we help him get his moral bearings? How do we make him understand that it was Germans who organized the Holocaust? How do we help him realize that seemingly civilized people can lose their most basic morality? Textbooks will not be enough just as they are not enough to make me understand life in the trenches of WW I.
Since the Bible’s telling of the Exodus, since Homer’s telling of the Trojan War and the Odyssey, since Tolstoy’s telling of the Napoleonic Wars we learn about history and morality through the suffering, perseverance and occasional triumphs of individuals. Today we distrust fiction and expect eyewitness accounts. The survivors of the holocaust are, alas, passing away faster than our grandson can grow up. It is therefore the major achievement of the Visual History Archive that it almost creates avatars of the survivors, avatars that will tell Matteo, our grandson, about their suffering, their perseverance and their eventual triumph over their tormentors. Providing this experience is probably the best we can do to keep the memory of the victims of this horrendous crime alive and reconfirm the message "Never again".
Maybe we will all remember today’s event as a watershed moment. We have the honor and the pleasure to be together with Ms. Saatsoglou-Santikario. But we also see her moving testimonial in the Visual History Archive; a testimonial through which she will live on to tell our grandson Matteo and hopefully many, many others about the horror that was the Holocaust.
It is therefore with great conviction and also great expectations that the German government finances out of the German-Greek Future Fund the access of the Aristoteles University and of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki to the Visual History Archive. May it encounter many open eyes, open ears, open minds!
Thank you very much